I managed to spend some time this week at an event on ‘Neoliberalism, Crisis and the World System‘. It was organised by my colleagues Nick Gane and Claire Westall. The event was free and I think it attracted around 150 delegates. What was particularly nice was that the group wasn’t split into streams. So each session had a very large audience. The event seemed to really tap into something. The audience was genuinely interdisciplinary, with historians, geographers, sociologists, anthropologists, political theorists and others, all coming together to discuss this key issue. It would seem that neoliberalism is a term that is providing the focus for some lively cross-disciplinary dialogue. It also seems to be a concept that generates some real vibrancy and debate. The sessions were lively and the breaks were full of continuing debate and interaction. I chaired a session on digital data as a tool of neoliberalism, which provided a media focus to the event. The other sessions covered a range of issues, including the political framing of neoliberalism and the questions it raises for voice, communication, governance and inequality. The first day ended with a two hour session on neoliberalism and the university, with a crackling atmosphere. This session in particular seemed to provoke provocative exchanges between the panel and the audience and some insight into the way in which these broader political issues are playing out in the working lives of the attendees.
The event left me wondering why a concept like neoliberalism is able to provoke and stimulate such debate. Why is it that this particular concept attracts such a large group of diverse attendees? How is it enabling and provoking such vibrant debate and response? Why is it speaking to these academics? I missed much of the second day due to open day commitments, but Jamie Peck’s stunning closing plenary pointed to some of the analytical properties of the concept of neoliberalism. As well as showing the historical trajectory of this concept, Jamie highlighted the tensions that are at the centre of its use and deployment. As there are different versions of neoliberalization playing out in different geographical contexts, so too different thinkers are using the concept to shape different analytical approaches and understandings. So it would seem that neoliberalism is a concept that thrives on such tensions. As Jamie remarked in response to a question from the floor, the analytical value in neoliberalism is in what it ‘forces us to do’. By which he seemed to suggest, it forces us to think of differences and connections whilst also having a profoundly historical and contextual understanding of neoliberalization as a continual project with ‘no destination’.
I’m just writing now on the future of sociology and the way that vibrancy and excitement might be generated for/by sociologists. I’m thinking that this concept, despite its growing baggage, could well be worth exploring further. It seems that some conceptual ideas have a life of their own that is hard to understand but which provokes an affective response amongst people from lots of academic disciplines and beyond. This in itself is really interesting and shows the power of just a single concept for framing such varied and vibrant exchanges.